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"The Last Real Record Store."
That's what Zia Record Exchange proclaims itself on TV commercials and banners, as if there were still some fiery independent spirit fueling the company like there was before founder Brad Singer died.
After Singer's sudden death in 1998, a dedicated cadre of upper management struggled and mostly succeeded in pulling Zia out of its rudderless turmoil. A veteran record retailer in the Valley, Jim Kelly, was hired as general manager of the chain after half a year of tumult, and he managed to return Zia's standard of independence and community-mindedness -- at least until recently. Kelly and almost all of the managers who worked with him to restore Zia's focus are now history, along with Impact Music (the company's one-stop wholesale distribution arm), and a Tucson Zia shop, the largest store in the chain.
Also lost to history is Zia's dedication to the constituency that was its lifeblood -- the fanatical record buyers who depended on the store to stock their collections with obscurities and imports.
Zia was once an eclectic, idiosyncratic record emporium where diggers could find the albums they wanted plus gems they didn't know they needed. Now it takes a rummage through piles of Top 200 CDs to find even the commonest of indie releases. On a recent trip to Zia's Tempe location on University, near Arizona State, the store had a dozen copies of Disturbed's latest metallicrap, but not one of Desaparecidos' incredible Read Music/Speak Spanish. In the rap section, I found a pile of Bow Wow's new teeny-rap disc but nary a copy of anything by Canadian wunderkind Buck 65.
Zia is the last real record store like Circle K is the last real grocery store.
After Brad Singer's death, control of Zia was eventually in the hands of his ex-wife, Sandra, who hired Jim Kelly, who had worked at Wherehouse Entertainment for 12 years, as general manager of the chain. Kelly describes Zia as "a plane flying on autopilot towards a hill" when he arrived.
His vision was exactly what Zia needed. "I think being the best independent record store means making sure everyone can find what they wanted," he says, looking back. "I wanted it to be a place where a dad could walk in with his kid and he could find the Coltrane record he was looking for and the kid could find Operation Ivy."
"Jim Kelly was the last hope, the last one there that really understood what Brad was doing," says a former employee. Of the half-dozen former and current employees interviewed, all but Kelly requested anonymity because of lingering ties to the company.
Sandra Singer sold the Zia chain and Impact distribution to a group of Scottsdale CPAs and investors around 2000. It seemed like a foolproof investment, a record chain that did 15 million in sales a year ("End of a Record Run," May 21, 1998) at a bargain price. Another former employee familiar with the details of the sale explains, "They thought they'd bought this absolute golden goose that should be laying golden eggs making them millions of dollars in a very short period of time. And it never did. It did okay; it broke even and even made a few bucks. But it never produced this huge egg."
The investors were oblivious to Zia's place in the music community, oblivious to the fact that Zia Records was so much more than a retailer to the bands that sold records on consignment through the chain, to the obsessive music heads who depended on Zia to acquire the most obscure elements of their collections. All they saw was a disappointing return on their investment; the golden egg was conspicuously absent. So heads began to roll.
Barry Barton, chief financial officer of Zia since 1990, reportedly got a shocker when he saw his position advertised in the classifieds in January of 2002. Kelly recalls, "One Sunday morning I get a call from Barry, he's flippin' the fuck out -- I would be, too -- that his job is in the newspaper. It was truly fucked up."
I'm told that Barton, who declined to comment, had never been informed that the owners were seeking to replace him. Barton had stuck with the company through its boom, through Singer's death, through the subsequent troubles that Jim Kelly had solved. Barton was fired in July of 2002, then rehired later that year. In January 2003, the owners hired Larry Rudnick to run the financial side of Zia. Barton was fired again in August. "[Rudnick] had been hired as the financial person," says a source close to the company. "But he wanted to be both, he wanted to [manage the] operational as well as financial."
Jim Kelly was fired on May 5, 2003. He now lives in New Jersey and works for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic in New York as a consultant on independent retailers. Rudnick now runs the chain as vice president and general manager, and another veteran Wherehouse manager named Brian Faber is Zia's director of retail operations.
"We have reduced staff considerably," Rudnick tells me. "And we paid severance to everybody; they're entitled to it and we think it's the right thing. I think [the owners] just wanted to change directions somewhat."